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Thursday, June 1, 2023

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Students Unite vs. For the Students: What to know before voting


Last Thursday, Rizk and Martin faced off in the 2023 SGA presidential debates. | Anh Le/The Cougar

This week, the race for the 60th administration of the Student Government Association enters its final leg. Students may cast their ballots through Get Involved before polls close on March 3.

For those who may not have followed the lead-up to the election, this article will explore the candidates’ backgrounds, platforms and statements made during last Thursday’s SGA presidential debate.

Background

This election represents a marked departure from those conducted in the past five years. Aside from parties being able to spend $8,800 more on their campaigns, this is the first time in recent history that features an incumbent candidate. 

Representing the For the Students Party, current SGA President Joshua Martin is seeking re-election. Martin, whose administration oversaw the revisions made to the election code that allowed him to run for a second term, said his status as an SGA veteran sets him apart from the other candidate. 

“What makes me the better candidate is that I have a year of experience in the position,” Martin said. “Last year, students took me on faith. Now, there’s a record.”

Aside from serving as SGA president, Martin also has a background in Greek life. A member of Kappa Sigma himself, Martin said his campaign has been endorsed by a large number of Greek life organizations, including Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Tau Kappa Epsilon and Sigma Pi. 

His opponent, Benjamin Rizk, leads the Students Unite party. A newcomer to SGA, Rizk has previous leadership experience as a student fellow for Beto O’Rourke’s gubernatorial campaign and was formerly the co-president of Students for Beto UH.  

Simply put, Rizk said his unfaltering dedication to advancing the needs of the student body and his track record of persistence are what qualify him to serve as the next SGA president. 

“For me, it’s all about persistence. It’s all about refusing to let an issue go,” Rizk said. “When I put my mind to something, I obsess over it. I don’t stop until it’s done.”

Perceived corruption, alongside alleged issues regarding equity and transparency within the current administration, were also motivating factors in Rizk’s decision to run. During Thursday’s debate, he decried what he saw as “dark money” and other shady dealings under Martin’s administration.

Platforms

Both parties in the 2023 SGA elections have condensed their goals into three core values. 

The Students Unite campaign is prioritizing support for working students, sustainability and increased access to health and wellness services. For the Students, conversely, is campaigning to improve job placement for UH graduates, reduce textbook costs and address safety concerns on campus. 

Last Thursday’s debate shed light on how each candidate intends to accomplish their party’s goals. For Students Unite providing aid to working students starts with increasing the minimum wage for students who work on campus. 

“I know that we can raise the minimum wage to $10 because it’s been raised before,” Rizk said. “It was raised from $7.25 to $8 under a previous administration through persistence and awareness.” 

On the other side of the aisle, Martin said For the Students has a multi-faceted approach to increasing access to employment opportunities for UH students. Working with local businesses and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office of education, Martin hopes to create a pipeline that starts in the classroom and ends with a job. 

“I see students all the time that don’t know what they want to do after college,” Martin said. “So through the Cougar Job Connection, we’ll be pairing students with local businesses so they can get their foot in the door.” 

The first of both parties’ goals, while similar in their intent to support students economically, differ greatly in approach. Students Unite is focused on students’ financial situations while enrolled, while For the Students hopes to improve their prospects post-graduation. 

For current students, Martin’s party aims to relieve the financial burdens of university life in a different way. The second campaign objective for For the Students is centered around raising awareness of the University’s recently-unveiled Cougar Textbook Access Program. CTAP was unveiled in January of 2022 and provides students with a cheaper alternative to buying books.  

“We’re going to work with the Office of Auxiliary Services so we can make sure students know about the CTAP program,” Martin said. “CTAP is a program that lets students buy any textbook for $299. That’s completely cheaper than some books, which can cost as much as $400.” 

The second goal of Students Unite focuses on supporting students’ mental health needs. Rizk hopes to achieve this goal by increasing funding for Counseling and Psychological Services and other wellness-related programs. 

“Increasing pay for CAPS counselors and improving employee retention within CAPS are two big steps we could take towards improving campus quality of life,” Rizk said. “There are students out there who can’t get the care they need, students who are on the brink of a mental breakdown because they can’t get an appointment or a follow-up.” 

The final goals of both parties are focused on the UH campus itself. For the Students is prioritizing campus safety, whereas Students, Unite! wants to address the University’s environmental impact. 

Rizk said that shifting emphasis from recycling to reducing the University’s reliance on disposable or single-use plastics is a cornerstone of his party’s goal to improve campus sustainability. This starts with replacing items made of plastic with more environmentally friendly materials. 

“Bamboo straws are a good start, as they are compostable and don’t dissolve like paper straws tend to,” Rizk said. “Additionally, reopening the Cougar Garden and installing compost bins on campus are big priorities.” 

Finally, a large part of For the Students’ safety agenda is improving lighting on UH’s main campus. Martin said he would work with administrators and UHPD to continue to address students’ safety concerns. 

“One thing we plan to do is create our light UH campaign,” Martin said. “Part of that will be establishing a hotline that students can call to report dark or unsafe areas.” 

Go vote

All students currently enrolled at UH are eligible to cast their votes before the polls close. All those who vote are automatically entered into a contest and could win a 50-inch TV, a Polaroid camera, an air fryer and an electric scooter. 

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